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Rodale Institute Bringing Organic Farming Research to the Southeast

A scene from the greenhouse at Rodale Institute’s center in Georgia.

By Kristie Wendelberger

Rodale Institute has been researching regenerative organic farming from its headquarters in Pennsylvania for over 70 years. But all farmers know that one size does not fit all in agriculture. That’s why Rodale Institute is committed to providing regionalized resources for farmers looking to learn more about organic practices in our country’s agricultural heartlands.

Rodale Institute opened the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center (RI-SOC) in 2019 to support Southeastern farmers — answering their questions about research, helping them transition to organic, and providing training through workshops, field days, lectures and apprenticeships. The RI-SOC is located in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, about 30 minutes southwest of Atlanta, on Many Fold Farm. With more than 300 acres of pasture and forested land to work with, the RI-SOC is poised to perform independent research at our facility, take part in replicated studies across several farms, or come to your farm to help you answer your research questions on your land.

As this is the RI-SOC’s first year, like many of you in the first year of farming, we have been busy building the farm. Our farm manager, Garver Akers, has spent hours in the office researching equipment, setting schedules and planning the first acre of fall garden space. He walked through the fields taking soil samples to test for pH, nutrient levels, and percent carbon; building deer fences; and installing our first greenhouse. In the lab, he retrofitted a walk-in cooler into a research growth chamber. As a trained farm educator, he took the lead working with our first Beginning Farmer Intern, Jewels Giuliano, who has flourished into a farmer in front of our eyes.

Meanwhile, I built our lab space, wrote grants and began research. I installed workstations and bought equipment, freezers and drying ovens. The lab is ready to process soil and plant samples to be sent out for nutrient analysis, experimentally grow plants in the growth chamber, and welcome workshops and classes to learn and experience hands-on research. To better understand the needs in the Southeast, we met with farmers to hear firsthand what their most pressing research needs are. We are now poised to start the new year answering questions revolving around varieties best suited for our hot, humid weather, ways to tackle mid-summer pests, and techniques to improve soil nutrient and microbial biodiversity.

We began our first research project studying the effect of cover crop and nutrient combinations under conservation and conventional tillage on soil nutrient and microbial biodiversity, yield, and fruit nutrient content. This project was funded by the USDA Organic Transitions program and in collaboration with Clemson University. The SOC and Clemson have sister experiments running to see the different impacts in Piedmont and Coastal Plain soils. We have an eight-block, split-plot design with conservation tillage versus conventional tillage as the main blocks, embedded with eight plots each of the following cover crop and nutrient combinations: hairy vetch only; winter rye only; chicken manure only; hairy vetch and winter rye; hairy vetch, winter rye, and manure; hairy vetch and manure; winter rye and manure; and a control plot with no treatment. Roma tomato and cucumber will be our rotating cash crops. Over the next three years we will look at how the soil nutrient levels, microbial communities and carbon levels change at 0-15, 15-30, 30-45 and 45-60 cm deep. We will assess cover crop density, crop yield and nutrient levels in the vegetables. Once complete, we will have a better idea of how to grow our southeastern soil microbial communities while obtaining the best yield and healthiest vegetables.

We had a great socially distanced year, taking the time to build a foundation on the farm that has made us ready to connect with our southeastern community now and into the future. We are looking forward to growing, with employment and volunteer opportunities available and a southeastern consulting program to be launched in 2021.
If you are a farmer or researcher that wants help answering your farming questions through research and collaboration, contact us at Southeast@RodaleInstitute.org. For more information on employment opportunities, volunteering and more, visit RodaleInstitute.org.

Dr. Kristie Wendelberger is the research director for the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. She is responsible for expanding organic farming practices throughout the Southeast through research, outreach and education. Learn more about her work in Georgia at RodaleInstitute.org/SoutheastOrganicCenter.